One step at a time | April 28, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 28, 2006

One step at a time

Palo Alto dance teacher helps autistic children blossom with motor and social skills

by Rebecca Wallace

Ehud Krauss embraces you when you've just met. He vaults into conversation feet-first, sometimes retreating into his native Hebrew to search for an English word but then jumping back in.

But when he works with autistic children, it's like he's holding snowflakes. The tall Palo Alto dance teacher slips off his tennis shoes and sits on the carpet with a circle of preschoolers in white socks. He treats them with infinite gentleness.

Peaceful music flows from his stereo at Sunny Days Preschool in San Jose, where he's leading a small class of both typical children and those with autism. Each child holds a plastic dish, pretending it's a steering wheel.

"We're driving the bus," Krauss says. "Now, slowly up the mountain."

Ever aware that autistic children can become overloaded with sound and motion, he keeps a father's eye on the class. But the children are contentedly swaying along with the rhythm of the music, piloting imaginary vehicles through a mountain range.

Founder of the Zohar Dance Studio in Palo Alto — which he runs with his wife, Daynee Lai-Krauss — Krauss, 60, is a seasoned dancer with a resume to match. He has studied with Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham, performed as a soloist and principal dancer far and wide, and holds a degree from the Institute of Art in Haifa, Israel.

But he also has another mission: "to take dance where no one takes dance." For 11 years, he's been teaching hip-hop and other moves to young offenders in local juvenile halls. He also works with at-risk youth in East Palo Alto.

And now Krauss is in his second year working with autistic children through the Pacific Autism Center for Education (PACE) in Sunnyvale, which runs Sunny Days Preschool. After working with older children with autism, he recently expanded to preschool, with the help of a $5,000 grant from Arts Council Silicon Valley in San Jose.

Krauss originally started working with autistic children through the San Mateo County Office of Education, where he teaches in 10 schools. He had no formal training with the neuro-developmental disability, which can make it difficult for people to learn and interact with others. But he was intrigued.

"I saw the kids — they looked different. They maybe didn't speak or engage," he recalled. "I thought, 'I want to tap into their engine.'"

Krauss says he teaches by intuition. "It's not like you open to page six and do this," he said. "I sense it. I don't know how to explain it." His sessions can include simple stretches or more complex moves, and he draws kids out with singing (a ditty about peanut butter and jelly is a particular favorite).

Dance can be valuable for autistic children, who often have trouble with motor skills, Sunny Days Director Sara Chapman said. Krauss believes the interpersonal experience the kids get in his class can be just as precious.

For one, he carefully coaxes them out of their own worlds by befriending them.

"I hug them a lot. They need to know they're safe," he said. "You need to get them to know you, trust you."

He also encourages independence by letting the children have some direction over the class. He lets them choose their favorite dance props such as scarves and hoops, or pick what movement comes next.

"They've been so isolated. Once they're part of the class, it's a success," Krauss said.

Marcia Goldman, director of education at PACE, said watching Krauss with the children is a pleasure. "From the day he started, he 'got' our kids," she said. "There's a respect and a dignity. He doesn't treat them like there's anything wrong with them."

Goldman clearly remembers one class that included a little boy who "can barely walk a straight line."

She recalled, "Ehud put five hula hoops on the floor, played rap music, and had him jump from one hoop to the next. I thought, 'Yeah, right.' But he did it."

When the music was turned off, the boy reverted to his original awkwardness, she said. "But for a few minutes, you never would have known there was anything wrong with his body."

Dance goes hand-in-hand with visual arts at Sunny Days, Goldman said. Autistic children often don't want to get messy by painting and coloring, as it's a form of sensory overload, so the staff gently encourages them to try these activities, she said.

These experiences are a key part of Sunny Days' early intervention program, which also includes speech and physical therapists, Goldman said. The hope is to enable the children to enter a regular elementary school.

Of course, that doesn't always happen, and some days Krauss finds the children harder to reach. "The ability for them to concentrate could be three seconds or three minutes," he said.

The music and motion can be overwhelming, "but they don't know how to ask for a break," he said. "They just lie on the ground like gefilte fish."

On the day he teaches Sunny Days youngsters to drive a bus with plastic dishes, Krauss follows that class with a more challenging group. All the kids here, he says, have "deep autism." Each one has a personal teacher assigned to him.

One boy crows delightedly to see Krauss, and Krauss gets the boy to jump up and down with him. The others are more withdrawn, and one will not get up from the carpet. "Leave him," Krauss says kindly to a teacher. "He's so bright. You just need to leave him alone."

Krauss encourages the other boys to make a "bus" like a conga line, but they're reluctant to touch each other. He remains patient, though, focusing on small successes, such as getting one to hold a hula hoop.

In a poignant moment, he encourages a boy to feel the rhythm of the music by putting the child's arms around his waist so they can sway together.

"Let's dance together," Krauss says, and they do, in perfect time.

The song ends, and there's a moment of hesitation. But Krauss says soothingly, "The music is coming."

Info: For more information about Zohar Dance Studio, go to www.zohardance.org. For more about PACE and Sunny Days Preschool, go to www.pacificautism.org.

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